It has been two hours. The dreary Claudius has just dispatched his son-in-law, Hamlet, to England and confided to the audience that he has asked England to execute him. He all but twirls his moustache – he doesn’t actually have one, but you can almost see it, and the black cape that goes with melodramatic villains of yesteryear. Suddenly, an eruption of wind explodes onto the stage. A purple haze of assaulting elemental forces mysteriously, seemingly attacks Elsinore.
Is it, as my witty companion observed, the tornado from The Wizard of Oz and can we expect Dorothy in the second half? Is it meant to represent the spirit of Hamlet’s dead father expressing his outrage, from the Underworld, about Claudius’ plan? Is it meant to represent the intellectual energy of the murderous Hamlet, demonstrating that Hamlet is everywhere in Denmark and Claudius cannot escape him so easily? Or is it just a lamentable gimmick from a director bereft of real ideas and clutching at impressive effects as substitutes for genuine suspense?
This is Lindsey Turner’s much anticipated revival of Hamlet now playing at the Barbican. The night in question has been termed a preview by the Producers, despite the fact that no literature about the production suggested that there were previews, the box office at the time of booking could not say when the press night was, the tickets themselves do not mention anything about previews, and the ticket price for the night in question was exactly the same as tickets for two months into the run. Only Producer greed accounts for this. If you charge full price for a production, it is not a preview. Period.
Of course, productions benefit from preview periods. But they should be previews that are delineated as such from the outset, especially for productions like this which are likely to sell out and where decisions about when to attend have to be made months in advance. If Producers were interested in the craft of theatre, they would specify what shows were previews, explain the production is still evolving, and not charge the same price for previews as for the finished product. But where they are only interested in profit, they sell tickets at full price, and then seek to silence the views of anyone who dares express an opinion despite attending a performance not billed as a preview. As here. Something is indeed rotten.
This production is much anticipated, sold out even, not because Lyndsey Turner was directing it, but because Benedict Cumberbatch was playing Hamlet. More of him later, but one suspects that this production will be remembered more for what Turner did to Hamlet and Cumberbatch than what Cumberbatch did with Denmark’s most famous tortured Prince.
The “preview” I attended was clearly different from that reviewed by The Times so there is obviously something to the “artistic work in progress” shouts. There was some uncertainty with lines from the cast and, indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking that there was uncertainty about lighting cues as well, so impossibly idiotic were some of Jane Cox’ lighting states here – great swathes of darkness and cold, harsh white light, often in combination, sucking suspense away as fast as it could be suggested, which was not often. At this point, this is a production all at sea, but no amount of previews is likely to change that.
This is not Hamlet as it is generally known. It is something else, based upon Hamlet, something that Turner has fashioned. A sow’s ear from a silk purse. A thing of shreds and patches. A cut and paste version of the play which is obstinately confusing rather than gloriously illuminating. The general interval buzz was “I don’t understand a word” and “Do you know what is going on?” Knowing the play well made scant difference – directorial decisions here were unfeasibly stupid and artistically without merit.
Usually, Hamlet begins with a moody, ghostly scene which introduces Hamlet’s father in sepulchral form, establishes Elsinore as a battle castle, and sets up Horatio as the audience’s empathy character. Tonight, that scene was jettisoned and Turner began the play with Hamlet on stage alone (presumably to permit thunderous applause on first sight, an occurrence absent on this occasion) fishing items out of a packing crate while playing a gramophone and listening to Nature Boy. This odd moment was followed by an exchange between Horatio and Hamlet which, out of its usual context, served as a bizarre non-introduction to either.
And on the first half rolled, switching and swapping lines and scenes to create a confusing tapestry of the tale of Hamlet’s revenge. Soliloquies are moved around, often placed so that their intrinsic value is diminished rather than heightened, as if they were an embarrassment or irrelevant. There is much interruption of scenes, sometimes to permit a soliloquy be interpolated, sometimes for another purpose, usually visual, rarely concerning clarity of story-telling. The first half did not finish until the second scene in Act Four, but much was lost upon the way there. And little of value replaced what was lost.
Nature Boy became a recurring motif, reaching its zenith in the rapier duel between Hamlet and Laertes at the play’s climax. The fencing is interrupted, moves to slow motion, while the ensemble perform jerky, choreographed movement that would do the Thunderbirds proud, and all the while an orchestral version of Nature Boy plays – as if there is something “full circle” happening.
After the purple tornado arrives, Elsinore is a disaster zone. Gravel, truckloads of it, is everywhere, as if the ground had been whipped up and spewed into the castle rooms. Or, perhaps, as if the graves were coming to Elsinore to claim their victims. It seems supernatural if not apocalyptic – as if magic were in play – but the characters carry on as if the gravel was not there.
Hamlet is not a play known for its magic. It is Shakespeare at his most entrancing: a spooky, ghost story full of “Is he mad?” questions; a small, intensely felt family drama: a bloody revenge play; a psychological meditation; a thriller. Shakespeare keeps all of these balls in the air as the narrative drives inexorably on. Great productions of the play make each ball bounce with precise energy and vigour.
Turner, inexplicably, ignores them all. Her approach is much more filmic – how something looks is more important that what is said. Gertrude’s admonishment to Polonius, “More matter, less Art” is not Turner’s approach here.
Curiously, the lyrics of Nature Boy, not Shakespeare’s text, seem to reveal the key to Turner’s approach to Hamlet here:
There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far
Very far, over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he
And then one day, a magic day
He passed my way, and while we spoke
Of many things, fools and kings
This he said to me
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return
A well travelled, strange, wise boy, a little shy and sad, obsessed with love. Possibly enchanted or magical. Basically, that is the Hamlet Cumberbatch provides in the strange world that Turner creates. One inspired by a Nat King Cole song recorded in 1947. It’s not a particularly heroic or anguished or fiercely intelligent or robustly virile turn although there are aspects of all of those possibilities in what Cumberbatch delivers. But, on the whole, it is difficult to get a hold on the type of Hamlet he is trying to be.
There is no clear through-line which brings clarity or provides understanding. Rather, there are a series of scenes stapled together in a flashy way, sometimes with unusual bells and whistles – for example the toy castle that Hamlet produces when he deals with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or the silly Basil Fawlty like military persona, a psychotic chocolate soldier almost, that Hamlet assumes for his “like a crab, backwards” encounter with Polonious. The humour is artificially imposed on the character and situation, it does not come organically from within as it could.
Cumberbatch is not well served by this production. He does not get a chance to shine as he might. Occasionally, in odd moments, there are flashes of greatness in his approach, mostly when he is being introspective, but the emotional highs of the scenes following “Alas, Poor Yorick” are beyond him here, and come across awkwardly and clumsily and, most regrettably, unconvincingly.
He is not aided, in any way, by the rest of the cast. No one is ideally cast, except perhaps Sergo Vares who makes a suitably princely outsider of Fortibras. Ciarán Hinds is disastrous as Claudius. His diction is poor and his sense of character flat and dull. He sucks the life out of every scene in which he appears.
There are flashes of interest from Kobna-Holdbrook-Smith (Laertes), Leo Bill (Horatio) and Siân Brooke (Ophelia) but each have no real chance given the way their characters are dealt with. Ruairi Conaghan butchers the language Shakespeare gave the Player King, Jim Norton is a study in fussy idiocy as Polonius but entirely misses the crucial political role he plays, and Anastasia Hille plays Gertrude as endlessly pained and resolutely dim, but without a shred of a notion of why she married Claudius. None of the characters make sense as individuals or as part of the complex world which Hamlet must navigate.
Turner’s complete failure to provide a solid cast of supporting characters leaves Cumberbatch in dire straits. Hamlet needs the other characters – the play won’t work as a solo turn. The relationships with all the other characters define and shape Hamlet and make for the great moments in the play. As well, it is only by seeing the other characters as Hamlet sees them that the audience can understand and love Hamlet. Here the great moments all fall flat – no hairs stand on end in the Ghost scene; the Closet scene is a disaster; the Play-Within-A-Play scene is staged stupidly; Ophelia’s mad scene is brutally tiring; Hamlet’s trip to England makes no visible change in him.
In Turner’s hands, more emphasis is on the gravel than the gravamen. Cumberbatch is left to his own devices, bereft of proper support, and, accordingly, cannot succeed. It is not possible to care for Cumberbatch’s Hamlet – which fatally undermines the performance. This is not really Cumberbatch’s fault. No actor could rise above the inadequacies of this production and this supporting cast, as directed by Turner, to attain greatness.
Es Devlin’s set is magnificent but except for a few scenes it does not really work for Hamlet, which requires very specific locations. It is not really possible to evoke the sense of the wintery, nightscape of the Castlewatch when the action set there happens inside a grand Banquet room. Nor is it possible to conjure up the intimate sense of Gertrude’s bedroom in such a space, and utilising the small travelling stage of the Players as a substitute for the arras to conceal Polonius does not work – his death comes as no surprise, partly because of the staging. There is no doubt it looks good, but the torando-gravel invasion is bizarre and the design is not fit for the purpose of Shakespeare’s play.
Katrina Lindsay’s costumes have that ineffable “no real time period” quality to them, so they are both somewhat pretty and awful at once. Cumberbatch is not given princely attire, partly one supposes because the production eschews the notion of his regal character. (He is more anarchist than prince-in-waiting.) Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui provides the Thunderbirds movement/choreography which adds a pop video feel to proceedings but is otherwise ludicrous. Bret Young’s rapier fight is not exciting or unpredictable enough, and Jane Cox’ lighting keeps everything unfocussed and looking dull.
The play’s the thing – wherein to catch the conscience of a King. And the hearts of an audience. Turner needs to pay more attention to the play and the actors. At the moment, to slightly misquote Hamlet, “Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of Shakespeare’s greatest play.”